Saturday, June 26, 2010


Before we left I had to prioritize the things I wanted to see while here. Southern Italy is an embarassment of riches to an archaeologist. Hands down, my highest priority was to see the Villa Rustica at the Villa Regina section of the Vesuvian town of Boscoreale. Brother, did I have my priorities straight!

It’s a good news/bad news scenario. There have been some 147 ancient Roman villas excavated in the region of Mt. Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples, all of which were buried under 15 to 90 feet of volcanic debris during the cataclysmic eruption of 79 CE. Of those, there is precisely one villa which has been excavated to anything approaching modern archaeological standards and is still available for study. One! And the news gets worse: something over half of these villas were discovered in the process of some latter-day construction project, were quickly examined for any treasures which could be taken, then destroyed or reburied. Even when antiquarians and later archaeologists were brought in to study the sites, the reports they left were cursory at best and disastrously incomplete at worst.

The good news is that everything about the Villa Regina dig was done not only correctly but in exemplary fashion. First the Superintendant of Cultural Properties recognized the irreplaceable value of this site and convinced the private land owners to cede the property in exchange for another site. Secondly, a shadowy group which operates in the Naples region and is well known, but which I for private reasons will hereafter refer to as They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, kept their ravening maws out of the way for once. Third, the excavation was carried out in the 1980s under the brilliant direction of Stefano de Caro in exemplary fashion, was minutely documented, and—God be praised!—was written up and published in a timely fashion. De Caro’s excavation report is a pleasure to read, even for one like me who struggles with Italian. American archaeologists, take note.

Finally, the site was preserved by the state government of Campania and opened to the public for visits and study, and a beautiful antiquarium (a small museum tied to a specific archaeological or historical site) has been constructed adjacent to the villa to house many of the artifacts recovered as well as many others from the Bay of Naples.

Unfortunately, finding the site was a nightmare. Italian signage is simply abysmal, inexcusable in a region that so desparately needs to wring every last dollar possible from tourism. The trip from Agropoli was surprisingly easy, considering traffic. We had figured on a two-hour commute door to door, and felt rather smug when we exited the autostrada at an hour and twenty minutes. Driving the last three miles to the museum was another thirty, after becoming lost at least five times and driving past the entrance to the museum three because the sign was so unobtrusive. If it had not been for my trusty, eagle-eyed navigatrice Sandy I doubt we would ever have found the place. And this was one of a dozen instances where she’s kept us out of a muddle.

Once there, however, we were first invited by a stylish woman to examine the collection in the antiquarium and within minutes were offered tiny cups of delicious espresso. That’ll kick-start your tour! As so often, the bella signora went far beyond the call to make our experience enjoyable.

The collection is simply exquisite, small, but chosen with incredible discrimination. Of course I was entranced by such lovely things as Roman shovels and vinedressers’ knives, but there is plenty here to make a visit memorable to any American tourist. Just to mention one thing, the museum contains the plaster cast of a juvenile pig that, along with the human occupants and other farm animals, was not able to escape a powerful surge. I know the little guy was destined for pancetta and prosciutto anyway, but somehow I find his fate more affecting because he was so helpless and obviously terrified. That’s how detailed the cast is.

Next, to a traveling exhibit of plaster and resin casts from all over the Vesuviana. Some were copies, but many more were originals, including several that you see all the time in the history books. Way cool, if gruesome.

But the highlight was the villa itself, which has been re-roofed to protect it and carefully conserved. In the background of the picture you will see why it was so perfectly preserved; some 18 feet of volcanic detritus. The amount of material that eruption generated is simply inconceivable, but when you consider it covered a hundred-square-mile area with that much stuff or more, you begin to get some notion.

The real stars of the show were the pressing rooms and the open-air wine cellar containing 18 of the huge terra cotta wine vats which were typically buried up to their shoulders to maintain a constant cool temperature. This villa was devoted almost exclusively to wine production, and the cellar at full capacity would have produced a bit over 10,000 liters of wine.

In the foreground of Sandy’s picture you’ll note that part of the farm’s vineyard has been replanted, and therein hangs a tale. Everybody knows about the plaster casts of the humans and animals of Vesuvius. But way back in the seventies a professor named Wilhemina Jashemski from the University of Maryland had the clever idea to fill root cavities of plants in the same way, and as luck would have it the Smithsonian had a database of root patterns of several thousand plants. Thus Jashemski was able to identify hundreds of plant species from Pompeii, Herculaneum and a number of other Vesuvian sites including this one. And her work has dramatically altered our perception of how things worked in Pompeii, where we now know there were vineyards, fruit orchards and market gardens in many places, right there inside the town. From this site and others we can even tell how the Romans spaced their vines and trellised them.

The second main phase of this trip took us to the other extreme of life in a villa. The so-called Villa San Marco in Castellamare, some 10 miles west of Boscoreale, is a luxury villa, a villa in the sense that most Americans think of when they hear the word (the Latin villa simply means ‘farmhouse’). Again, horrible signage, again, any number of helpful people, and again, people at the site who obviously took tremendous pride and joy in showing us an element of their past. This villa is so totally over the top that it’s a bit disturbing; wealthy Romans were very wealthy indeed, and they took obvious pleasure in flaunting it. Sixty-two rooms uncovered so far, not one but three atria, two peristyles, one with fountains, decorative pools and a swimming pool the size of four Olympic pools. All with a panoramic view out over the Bay of Naples. Another peristyle just for ornamental plants and a different vista. Lavish frescoes in almost every room. A private bath suite with hot, tepid and cold baths. A kitchen with a cooktop thirty feet long. I could go on, but you get the idea. The guy lived like a god, and probably had ambitions.

Driving back home I was struck by the contrast of our two villas, the villa rustica and the villa maritima. It is so easy to extrapolate from the sensational sites such as the Villa San Marco. But we suspect that something like 95% of all ancient Romans were farmers, most of whom probably operated pretty close to the subsistence level. Our farmer at Villa Regina was considerably above that level, but he was still far more typical of ‘real’ life in ancient Rome than the plutocrat at San Marco. That may be yet another reason I have fallen in love with the Cilento; so many of these people are so much closer to the ‘real’ if rapidly changing Italy of today.

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